Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Wall Garden

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The Wall Garden, looking east. Photo by Bob Trube ©  2019.

In childhood, my grandmother always loved to visit what we then called “the Rock Garden” when all the flowers were in bloom in spring. She loved the cascades of the yellow basket-of-gold flowers, purple creeping flox and the white flowers of the yucca plants they somehow managed to grow.

Most of the time, drivers probably give little thought to this rock retaining wall on West Drive between the south end of West Glacier Drive, and the Birch Hill Cabin and Lily Pond areas. That is too bad, because the Wall Garden, as it is formally called was part of one of the major construction projects in the development of Mill Creek Park.

In the early years of the park, created in 1891, most of the roads were little more than dirt roads along Mill Creek or Bear Creek, which flowed into Mill Creek from the west. There was one such road, called the Old Hamilton Road along Bear Creek at the base of the steep hill where the two creeks met. Atop of the hill was a dirt road for many years called One Way Drive (now One Way Trail, one I hiked as a kid). The road ran from McCollum Road above the Lily Pond, atop the hill and came out by the foreman’s house on West Glacier Drive.

After Lake Glacier was created, William Henry Manning, the consulting architect for Mill Creek Park, decided in 1921 to cut through part of the big hill above Bear Creek and create West Drive, connecting up with Birch Hill Cabin, the Lily Pond, and the Bears Den area further west. The project was known as “the Big Cut,” and to prevent soil and rock slides, or a collapse of part of the One Way Drive atop the hill, stone was quarried from Bears Den to serve as a retaining wall for the area below “Lookout Point” which overlooks the Lily Pond and Birch Hill area.

The Wall Garden was begun in 1925 and completed in 1927. Altogether, it is 552 feet long and 54 feet high and was planted with plants that could grow in the soil and crevices between the rocks. What may have been a necessity from an engineering point of view was turned into another facet of the beauty that is Mill Creek Park that has endured for nearly a century.

Sources:

John C. Melnick, M.D., The Green Cathedral (Youngstown: Youngstown Lithographing, 1976), pp. 117-120.

Carol Potter and Rick Shale, Historic Mill Creek Park (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Press, 2005), p. 81.

Review: Religion in the University

religion in the university

Religion in the University, Nicholas Wolterstorff. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.

Summary: Defends the idea of the place of religious ideas in scholarly discussion.

In many quarters of the world of higher education, religious ideas or religiously informed perspectives are deemed inappropriate for the classroom, and for scholarly research and discourse, confining these discussions to the co-curricular part of the university. Emeritus Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff lays out in compact but carefully reasoned format, an argument for the proper place of religious ideas in academic discourse.

He begins with a classic work by Max Weber, “Science as Vocation,” that argued that religious ideas, not being immediately accessible facts, should not be part of academic discourse but be relegated to the private and personal sphere of life. Wolterstorff would contend that this reigning assumption still holds, although developments over the last fifty years significantly undermine this argument.

First of all, in science, the work of Thomas Kuhn demonstrated that evidence often under-determines theory, and thus other factors influence choices of theory. Likewise, Hans Georg Gadamer demonstrated in textual interpretation that questions of significance shape the conclusions made about texts and reflect the situation of the interpreter: gender, ethnicity, social class, underlying philosophical commitments. Hence, in the humanities, there arose a number of critical schools: Marxist, feminist, queer, African, and so forth. All scholars bring judgments of significance, theoretical preferences, and prejudgments to their work.

So, why then are religious commitments ruled out? One of the reasons is a criterion of rationality, and the notion that religious beliefs are non-rational. Some of this comes from the work of Locke, who proposed that a warranted belief should be based on an argument. Yet this dismisses the reality that human beings believe many things on the basis of testimony and experience without resort to argument. Many accept findings on scientific matters on testimony and come to other beliefs on the basis of immediate experience. Wolterstorff proposes that, while we should be open to the possibility of our or others’ beliefs being mistaken, “beliefs, in general, are innocent until proven guilty, not guilty until proven innocent” (p. 102). He allows that while there are specific cases of deficient religious beliefs, this does not warrant relegating all religious beliefs to the category of non-rational and thus excluded from academic discourse.

In his concluding chapter, he argues that universities are pluralist institutions and that religious as well as other perspectives ought to be welcome to contribute their distinctive voices to academic discussions. He believes that to exclude these contributions is to impoverish the university.

I do not feel qualified to evaluate Wolterstorff’s discussion of different philosophers and so find myself trusting his testimony(!). I would propose that in American universities, Wolterstorff offers a special challenge to Christians, who for a period enjoyed a kind of hegemony, and then experience a displacement amounting to being exiled from academic discourse. It entails laying aside past memories either of privilege or persecution and learning the practice of participation as Christians in contributing their insights into academic discourse, along with others. In place of a posture of either entitlement or embattlement, this calls for a posture of engagement. It means the careful, respectful hearing of others, weighing the merit of ideas, and forthrightly contributing one’s own for rigorous analysis, for critique, and refinement. That is how universities work at their best. That is the opportunity for religion in the university in the early twenty-first century.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Who’s On First

Who's on First

Who’s On First (A Blackford Oakes Mystery), William F. Buckley, Jr. New York: MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published 1980).

Summary: Oakes becomes involved in a plot to abduct a Soviet scientist couple involved in the research to launch Sputnik.

CIA agent Blackford Oakes leaves Hungary with the memory of the execution of Theophilus Molnar during the quenched Hungarian uprising of 1956. Having provided access to a “safe” house, somehow his safety is betrayed, Molnar is arrested, and executed on the spot.

Vadim and Viktor sustained each other through eight years in the Gulag. Both were scientist arrested for “anti-Soviet” agitation. Viktor believes Vadim saved his life by giving him hope. Later Vadim defects, and becomes involved with the CIA as “Serge.”

The Soviet Union and the United States are in a mad race for space, to put the first satellite in orbit. Each has technical problems, which if solved would clear the way to launch. Each has the answers the other needs.

All these factors come together in Paris when Viktor and his wife Tamara are in Paris for a scientific conference. It is decided to abduct the couple, who are working on the critical research, using the friendship with Vadim to elicit their co-operation. Oakes is enlisted as a taxi driver to abduct them during a staged bus breakdown, with a cover plot of an Algerian radical group seeking an exchange of weapons for hostages.

Unbeknownst to Oakes, KGB agent Bolgin knows Oakes is in Paris. A mole in the French resistance develops a plot to seize and execute Oakes. Oakes, recognized in photos at the abduction scene, unknowingly betrays the kidnapping as a CIA operation. The attempt to obtain Russian secrets jeopardizes the lives of Oakes, and Viktor and Tamara. Along with the death of Theo, all of this raises questions for Oakes, questions that if he survives could end his career. Meanwhile, questions of a different sort at a higher level raise the question of whether winning the space race is worth it, even as a critical operation to sink a Russian freighter carrying a critical piece of technology is counting down to zero hour.

Buckley weaves a compact, fast paced espionage novel around these elements. He recalls the mood that existed in the Cold War era leading up to the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, an event that actuated a military and scientific effort in the United States anticipated in this novel. He exposes the moral dilemmas of what Cold War maneuvering meant for the individuals whose futures and even lives might be sacrificed in covert efforts to attain a benchmark of supremacy. Having missed this series when it first came out, I’m glad for the second chance afforded by the folks at Open Road Media.

 

Review: Jean Vanier

jean vanier

Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man Anne-Sophie Constant. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2019.

Summary: A biography of Jean Vanier, the founder and guide of the L’Arche homes where assistants and cognitively disabled live together in community. 

On May 7, 2019, one of the most remarkable saints of our era went to his eternal rest and reward. Anne-Sophie Constant, who enjoyed extraordinary access to this man, completed earlier in the year her biography of Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche houses for the disabled. She describes a man who lived at peace, and as a truly free man during his life. She writes in introduction:

The story of Jean Vanier is the story of a free man – a man who knew how to become himself, who knew how to free himself from restraints and prejudices; from intellectual, religious, or moral habits; from his epoch; from popular opinion (p. x).

The biography traces his life from childhood. Raised in a devout Catholic home, he learned a life of service from a distinguished father, an amputee survivor of World War I who eventually became the Secretary General of Canada. Vanier enlisted in the Navy after World War II was declared, serving on the H.M.S Vanguard on a royal trip to South Africa, meeting the future Queen Elizabeth. A rising officer, he later experiences a near death experience falling overboard, and loses his fear of death. After the war, he leaves the service, and while living with his parents, when his father was ambassador to France, he meets the future Pope John XXIII and the philosopher Jacques Maritain.

His travels take him to the hospitality houses of Dorothy Day and Friendship House in Harlem, places practicing radical hospitality toward those on society’s margins. Studying philosophy and theology preparing for the priesthood, he joins the Eau Vive (Living Water) community for meditation and prayer, only to find himself in leadership of the community during a conflict-fraught period, then later to a Cistercian abbey. Father Thomas, a professor and friend accepted the chaplaincy of Val Fleuri in Trosley, a facility for cognitively disabled men.

Vanier joined him in Trosley, first helping in the work at Val Fleuri, and then in July of 1964, when he decides to buy a home and invite some intellectually disabled men to live with him. The home was named L’Arche, (The Ark). Knowing little what should be done, he discovers that the greatest need of these men is to know they are loved. Constant writes:

   Jean has a profound intuition of human beings and of their beauty. “They don’t realize that they are so beautiful!” he says. “They are so crushed with guilt and feel very dirty. They don’t have any self-confidence. They do not realize that they are loved. They don’t know how valuable and how precious they are” (p. 75).

They live as a spiritual community and Vanier and his assistants discover that these men minister to them as they form a spiritual community. And so a movement begins.

Constant describes the spread of this movement from one house to an international movement of 150 houses in 80 countries. She also describes a process where Vanier moves from a leader to a guide to a messenger of the gospel for the disabled. As he ages, Constant chronicles Vanier’s ability to let go, to relinquish leadership, even as he represents this movement in the highest circles of the Catholic church.

The biography captures the genius of Vanier’s work:

Jean Vanier does not “take care of” people with intellectual disabilities. He lives with them. He lives with L’Arch members Eric, Doudou, Pauline, and Rene. (p. 111).

Vanier’s freedom is of the man who listens to the voice of Jesus, the voice speaking within him rather than hewing to the pressures and expectations of society. He does not fear making mistakes, and he does make them. He does not fear being with those of seeming low status on the margins. He is one who has died “to the ‘false me’ of our social constructs and fears” (p. 117).

The biography describes the life of someone who first came away to listen to God, and thus was able to hear the call of God to community of the intellectually disabled who were precious to God, and fellow members of Christ’s body, people to be lived with. While not all will be called to the kind of work Vanier did, Constant’s biography offers the hope of the radical freedom that comes as we yield ourselves to the God who bids us to listen to his voice, to walk in his ways, and to extend his love in the world.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age

Ecologies

Ecologies of Faith in a Digital AgeStephen D. Lowe and Mary E. Lowe. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: Proposes an ecological model of faith formation and the possibility of creating this kind of spiritual ecology in online educational settings.

It was in a college biology course that I was first introduced to the reality of ecosystems. My biology prof wisely told us to select a patch of nature and to take time to observe all that was going on–from the soil and the creatures that lived in it to the vegetation, shrubs, trees, to insects, animals, and birds. I never thought before of how these were not disparate elements but interdependent on each other to flourish.

Stephen and Mary Lowe propose in this book an ecological model of growth for human beings consisting of six elements: physical, intellectual, emotional, social, moral, and spiritual ecologies. The first part of the book develops this ecological motif in scripture, particularly in the parables and Paul’s image of the body of Christ. The authors argue that this is possible not only in shared physical communities but that spiritual ecological communities may form online as well and contribute substantively to each other’s growth.

They especially engage the criticism that online community is a weakened form of mediated presence. They note that the doctrine of the communion of saints and the bonds of the Holy Spirit are not limited by distance and share examples from thoughtful online discussions eliciting more than what people would say in a classroom to compassionate support when difficult circumstances are shared with a group on Facebook. Online connections serve as a form of social capital, as do in-person connections, and sometimes these intersect. Instead of creating autonomous, isolated learners, online technologies foster connected, collaborate learning and growth. The Lowes also note how this is not new to our day. The Apostle Paul uses the mediated communication of letters, read by emissaries as a way to be absent in body but present in spirit to churches in different locations. They also note the power of reciprocal influence in social networks, especially as the diversity of those networks increase (diverse natural ecosystems tend to be far more robust).

The final part of the book focuses more on the nature of connectedness, looking at our connetions with Christ (syn Christo), with each other (synkoinonos) and the “one anothering” that runs through the New Testament. They propose the idea of ecological or contagious sanctification with examples of leaven and root and branch systems used in scripture.

Finally they propose a series of propositions for thinking ecologically about spiritual growth:

  1. God created a universe that exists and functions as a cosmic ecosystem.
  2. The earth exists within a larger cosmic ecology and operates by ecological laws.
  3. Natural growth follows ecological laws and teaches us that everything grows through ecological interconnections and organic interactions in a mutualistic relationship of interdependence.
  4. Ecological laws that govern natural growth operate similarly in the spiritual realm.
  5. Christians have a spiritual connection to Christ and other Christians, which forms a spiritual ecology.
  6. The spiritual connections we have with other Christians create opportunity for reciprocal exchanges of spiritual nutrients.
  7. The spiritual ecology created by Christ through the Spirit is unbounded by time and space, enabling Christians to enjoy the benefits of this reality at any time and in any place, whether in person or online.
  8. Christians who share a connection to Christ through the Spirit receive an imputed holiness that makes them mutually contagious and provides us with the ability to spread our contagion in online ecologies of learning (pp. 211-222).

This last point seems to engage in theological imprecision. Scripture speaks of the righteousness of Christ being imputed to the believer, but not holiness, a progressive work of the Holy Spirit in transforming our lives. I also question how we can spread something imputed by God. We can only point others to the one who imputes righteousness through Christ. That said, Christians may certainly influence one another to endeavor, with the Spirit’s help, to live holy lives.

I also thought that this book tries to do two things and does one reasonably well, and one less well. The book makes a good case for an ecology of spiritual growth, for the ways we are interdependent upon one another, whether together, or separated by space and time, in fostering each other’s growth. This book thus makes a good case for online community and its power to contribute to our growth in Christ.

What the book does less well is describe how this may be done well, as well as dealing with the dysfunctional aspects of online media. Just as good gardeners work with the ecology of places in choices and arrangement and cultivation of plants, it seems that those who curate online spaces likewise can do things either to foster or inhibit spiritual growth in those spaces. It would have been very helpful for these educators to give more specifics, and not just anecdotes, of how they translated their theory into practice.

Good gardeners often plant in groupings rather than single plants. Plants thrive together.  The Lowes help us see that the same is true for Christians–we grow better together, and together can include online forms of togetherness. These can be substantive, and formative. Hopefully this work will contribute to the development of good practices that foster such outcomes.

 

Review: The Pioneers

The Pioneers

The PioneersDavid McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.

Summary: An account of the first European-Americans to settle the Northwest Territory, focused on their settlement at Marietta, the challenges they faced, key figures in the town’s early history, and three important conditions they established in the new territory.

I’ve long been a fan of the work of David McCullough. So it was only natural to pick up this latest work of his. Little did I realize that the focus of this work was on the settlement of the first town in my home state, indeed, all of the Northwest Territory. I suspect that many Ohioans are unaware that the scenic little town on the Ohio River in southeast Ohio, Marietta, was the first settlement of European-Americans in Ohio and the Northwest Territory.

The story begins with a minister, Manasseh Cutler and some of his friends, including General Rufus Putnam, who helped in forming the Ohio Company. When the Revolutionary War ended, the British ceded the Northwest Territory (now the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, and a portion of Minnesota) to the United States. McCullough tells the story of the critical influence of Cutler on the drafting of the ordinance for the governance of the Northwest Territory in establishing three conditions: freedom of religion, free universal education, and the prohibition of slavery.

While Cutler remained in Massachusetts except for a brief visit to the settlement, General Putnam led the initial expedition that established the settlement. One of Cutler’s sons, Jervis, was reputedly the first to set foot on the land. Putnam was critical to the first years of the settlement and McCullough describes his leadership in laying out the town, creating the fortification known as Campus Martius,  when the Native peoples arose against the influx of new settlers, while preserving pre-historic mounds within the fortification.

Between attacks of the Native peoples, their depredations on wild life on which the colonists depended for food, and illness, the settlement struggled in the early years of its existence. The eventual defeat the Native peoples, and removal combined with the solidarity of the settlers in their struggle for survival resulted in the endurance and growth of the town.

McCullough tells the story of the established settlement through focusing on the lives of four individuals: Putnam, Ephraim Cutler (another of Manasseh’s sons, Samuel Hildreth, and Joseph Barker. Putnam gave leadership to the settlement. Cutler served a critical role in representing Marietta in the new capitol of Ohio, Columbus, translating the conditions of the Northwest Ordinance into reality: maintaining religious freedom, making provision throughout the state for universal free education, and resisting efforts to establish slavery in Ohio. Cutler was instrumental in the founding of Ohio University, and also Marietta College.

Samuel Hildreth was a physician, and along with his son, saw to the medical needs of the people, particularly through epidemics of influenza, small pox, and yellow fever. Survival rates under his care were higher than elsewhere, attesting to his skills and devotion to his patients.  He was an early leader of the Physicians Society of Ohio, and also kept journals and drawings of nature observations that qualify him as one of Ohio’s first naturalists. Joseph Barker was the builder and architect of Marietta, responsible for many public buildings and private residences, as well as the ill-fated Blennerhassett mansion on nearby Blennerhassett Island. The dream home of Harman Blennerhassett and his wife was caught up in the conspiracies of Aaron Burr against the United States, to the great loss of the Blennerhassetts.

McCullough’s account has been criticized for primarily looking at the challenges faced by the European-Americans who settled the Ohio country, and not those faced by the Native peoples who already occupied this land. McCullough shows cognizance of these issues in describing the motivating concerns of the aggression of Native peoples as they witness the large numbers of settlers with a very different idea of land ownership coming onto lands they occupied, the courageous and often skilled warfare they fought under leaders like Tecumseh, and the sadness of the eventual removals of these peoples. More than this would have resulted in a much longer and less focused narrative. What I think McCullough might have done is discuss the notable omission of the Northwest Ordinance to address the just treatment of the Native peoples and how their presence would be acknowledged and govern settlement patterns and practices. He addresses the positive distinctives, but not this critical omission. The assumption was that if you could survey it, you could occupy it, one reason why Native peoples especially targeted surveyors. Two very different ideas about land ownership clashed here and throughout the country, without a just resolution.

Nevertheless, I found this a fascinating study of the key figures in this book, and the early history of the settlement of my state. Ohio eventually played a key role in the Underground Railroad movement. The fight to prohibit slavery made the state a haven for fugitive slaves enroute to Canada (there is some evidence that the Cutler family even played a part in this). It was an early pioneer of public and higher education, the home of the McGuffey Reader and a network of public and private colleges throughout the state of which Ohio University and Marietta College were the earliest. McCullough gives us a narrative of the character, courage, and enterprise of these pioneers who not only survived but profoundly transformed the Ohio country during their lives.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Bears Den

1908 Postcard of Bears Den

1908 Postcard of Bears Den

Did you ever climb around the rocks in the Bears Den area of Mill Creek Park? The area makes you wonder if there was a time when a group of giants were tossing the huge boulders at each other, they look so tumbled down.

Maybe your visits were tamer, perhaps hiking a trail along Bears Den Creek or going to a gathering at Bears Den Cabin, having a picnic in the picnic area in the Upper and Lower Meadows, or playing a game of ultimate frisbee on the open field of the Upper Meadow.

I think at one time or another, I probably did all of these things. You probably did as well. Have you ever wondered about the history of this area, where all those rocks came from and how the area developed?

I always thought all those blocks were left by glaciers. I came to discover that the more likely explanation was that as Bears Den Run (or Bear Creek as it is sometimes called) flowed into Mill Creek, it cut through the sandstone, of which the rocks consist to underlying softer layers of shale, undercutting the sandstone until pieces of it collapsed into the creek. Gradually the descending creek cut the ravine we see today. It’s not particularly complicated. It mostly comes down to running water. (From a paper by John S. Petrek, Geological Features in Mill Creek Park Youngstown, OhioJune 1971, pp. 26-27).

I say mostly because there were industries along Bears Den Run at various periods. Grist and sawmills. Blacksmith shops. And most significant, several quarrying operations, one of which was in the ravine behind Bears Den Cabin (William McKinley was one of the business partners), another, the Jake Stambaugh quarry in the bluff next to the Wick Recreation Area along Bears Den Road. Stone from these quarries were used for bridges over Bears Den Run, the Bruce Rogers Bridge at Birch Hill, the Lake Cohasset Dam, and the Wall Garden overlooking West Drive.

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Part of Bear Creek (Bears Den Run), Bob Trube © 2019

If you look at a map of Mill Creek Park, you readily notice that most of it runs south to north on either side of Mill Creek and the three lakes formed by dams. Bears Den and the Wick Recreation Area to the north jut out to the west from the rest of the park. The park was created in 1891. Volney Rogers continued to acquire parcels, and acquired the Bears Den properties in 1894. However this area was not connected to the rest of the park until 1921 when another 60 acres were acquired in the Bear Creek Valley (the narrow corridor connecting Bears Den with the rest of the park at West Drive) and Bears Den Drive was constructed.

Bears Den Cabin was built in 1931 in the northwest corner of the Upper Meadows. A kitchen was installed in 1960, a parking lot in 1962 and modern lighting in 1963. Pictures on the park website suggest the kitchen and interior has been further updated. The cabin is heated and also has a fireplace but no air conditioning. It can accommodate up to 40 people and be rented by the half or full day ($75 for a half day; $125 for a full day for Mahoning County residents; $100/$165 for non-residents, as of 8/2019).

The name “Bears Den”? At one time there really were bears living in those caves and roaming the ravine. One still hears reports of black bears in other areas around northeast Ohio, so this shouldn’t be entirely surprising,

Finally, about all that climbing around in Bears Den. This actually violates current park regulation 20.6 which reads: “No person is permitted to climb or rappel hillsides or ravine areas on Park District lands.” These regulations were first published in 1989 and most recently amended in 2017. Whether any of this existed when most of us were growing up I don’t know. Certainly none of us knew anything about that. Even the distinguished Dr. John C. Melnick recounts this incident from his youth in The Green Cathedral:

One of the author’s most harassing experiences occurred in Bears Den. Once as a young boy hiking in the Bears Den it was decided to climb up the side of huge boulders. After several of these were conquered, an attempt was made on a very high boulder measuring over 25 feet in height. By use of small hollows in the rock for steps and grasping places, success was achieved for about three quarters of the height when additional footing was lacking. No progress could be made either up or down. In a state of apprehension, help from his friends saved the day” (pp. 145, 147).

Whether it is the placid sound of the running waters of Bear Creek as you walk along side on one of the trails, the rugged beauty of the tumbled boulders in the ravines, or the pleasant picnic areas, the Bears Den area is one of areas of the park that has been delighting visitors over the last hundred years.

Would the Apostle Paul Have Written a Blog?

blogging-blur-communication-261662I’m working out some ideas here, so I’d love to hear what others think about this. I recently was appointed the director of a national effort of the collegiate ministry I work with that we describe as a “digital first” effort to encourage and engage aspiring scholars who want to link their faith and academic life. It has me thinking about the place of online media in forming communities around similar interests; in this case around faithful Christian presence in the university world and what that looks like.

Much has been made of the movement of people from “on-the-ground” communities in particular places to online, or what some would call, virtual communities. Many think these online communities are poor substitutes for “on the ground” community, which for some is real community. Church attendance dwindling? Blame it on the internet. That sort of thing. Inevitably, online forms are opposed to “on the ground” forms, and labelled inferior.

A book I’ve been reading recently, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age has me re-examining assumptions. One of the most startling insights for me came from their attention to the letters of the Apostle Paul. Paul, like all of us, could only be in one place at a time. Over the course of his life, his travels took him from modern day Syria through Asia Minor and Greece, to Rome, and perhaps onward to Spain. He wrote to groups of believers where he had started churches (in Galatia, Corinth, Ephesus, Thesalonica, and Philippi, and to groups he had never visited (in Colossae and Rome). Twenty-eight percent of the New Testament consists of Paul’s letters and he wasn’t the only letter writer! What is striking is that Paul both seeks to communicate spiritual truth and instruction with those he is not with, but also assumes deep friendships and collaboration. He describes the Philippians as “partners with” him (synkoinonia) and the Romans as people he “longs to see.”

I wonder if Paul would have been a blogger today. Or would he have used podcasts to stay in touch with and instruct those he was away from for whom he cared? Maybe they would have used video conferencing or Facebook groups (I’m not sure he would have used Twitter–have you seen some of his sentences, particularly in Greek!). Then Paul would come visit, or perhaps gather leaders from many places at a single location for a conference

I wonder if a better way to think about these things is to see face to face and remote communication as complementary means of sustaining community and maintaining the values and mission we are engaged in together. Rather than either-or, there is a both-and engagement that is rich and substantive and two-way or even networked, whether we are together or not.

There are educators I know who have taught both in the classroom and online, and often have found the online interactions superior in terms of thoughtfulness of responses, and the engagement of quieter students who may not speak up in classes. Much hinges in how you set up what the book I mentioned earlier calls the “ecology” of a given context. While social media is justly vilified for echo chambers, bullying, and toxic discourse, I’ve also seen online contexts where differing perspectives are aired with both candor and mutual respect, and where people extend genuine and deep care for each other on and offline.

Finally, I’m struck that what makes this work, for Paul, and for us, is genuine affection and deep regard, even love. for those one is interacting remotely with. I’ve received many warm and thoughtful online messages. I remember those messages when I see the people who have written them, and it strengthens the bonds we share.

It is true that all forms of communication with those remote from us cannot easily convey all that we would be able to express verbally and non-verbally face to face. Actually, it makes me more intentional, more thoughtful. It makes me think and work harder, and read and listen more carefully. To write a response, particularly if it is not a tweet, requires more deliberation than off-the-cuff statements.

Yes, my hunch is that Paul would have written a blog. What do you think?

Review: Hidden in Christ

hidden in Christ

Hidden in Christ: Living as God’s BelovedJames Bryan Smith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2013, 2019.

Summary: Thirty short reflections on different key words found in Colossians 3:1-17 on what it means to be “in” Christ.

A number of years ago, I had the chance to go through James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful God (review) with a group. Perhaps one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of this study was memorizing Colossians 3:1-17 together, a verse or two each week, forcing us to really meditate on each word of the text. The first three verses of this text are as follows:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1-3, NIV)

The title of this work draws on verse 3, and one of the themes Smith explores is what it means for us to live in Christ. Above all, it means to live as God’s “holy and dearly loved” people, (verse 12). In this pocket-sized work, James Bryan Smith leads us through a kind of lectio divina on this text in Colossians, focusing successively in 30 chapters on key words found in the text, offering short reflections on each one. For example, the first five are drawn from the verses above: raised, with, seated, set, hidden. As he considers the word “set” in verse 2, he offers these reflections:

   When it comes down to it, living the Christian life is simply a matter of where we set our minds. Every waking moment we have a choice about where, and on what, we will set our minds. That is something we are free to do. Having been raised with Christ and forgiven forever, and having Jesus with us in all we do, the primary practice of living as a Christian boils down to what we think about, what we dwell on, what values we keep before our minds, what truths (or lies) we have in our consciousness. (p. 37).

In addition to these brief reflections, there are sections about “Living into the Truth,” an “Affirmation” which is a brief statement summarizing the key truth represented by the word, a “Prayer,” and finally questions for “Reflection.” The short chapters and focus on a single word make this an ideal devotional resource that could be used over a month, or perhaps once a week for thirty weeks. There is also a group discussion guide at the back of the book for a five week discussion using six chapters each week.

In addition, this little book is a good introduction to the ideas in the Apprentice Series by the same author–or perhaps in my case, a good refresher. Recently, a paperback version of the book has been released, making it available at a lower price. What Smith models for us is the slow, reflective opening of ourselves to the message of scripture we often pass by in our instant-everything world. When we omit these practices, we do not gain time but lose the chance to hear God’s assurances of our belovedness.

 

Review: The Impeachers

the impeachers

The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just NationBrenda Wineapple. New York: Random House, 2019.

Summary: A history of the accidental presidency of Andrew Johnson, his resistance to the civil rights fought for in the Civil War, and the impeachment proceedings against him.

Impeachment. Only twice in American history has Congress pursued impeachment proceedings against a President of the United States. Neither instance resulted in conviction of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” This book chronicles the first instance where this remedy was pursued, during the presidency of Andrew Johnson.

Brenda Wineapple gives us a well-crafted account of the presidency of Andrew Johnson, the circumstances leading to his impeachment, the key figures from the House of Representatives that prosecuted the impeachment, as well as the presiding Chief Justice, the defense, and the final denouement.

Andrew Johnson was always a bit of a lone wolf, rising from tailor to accidental president when Lincoln was assassinated. When the Civil War began, though sympathetic with the white supremacy of the South, Johnson argued against secession as unconstitutional, and that in fact it was impossible for states to secede from the Union, a position he maintained later on as president. When Tennessee seceded, he continued to take his seat in the Senate. Later, Lincoln named him military governor of Tennessee. When it came time for Lincoln the Republican to run for his second term, he did the unusual thing of offering Johnson, a Democrat, the Vice Presidency, partly to weaken the Democrats, and perhaps with a view toward the restoration of the Union.

Wineapple describes how Johnson quickly instituted his own version of Reconstruction, allowing many of the old leaders of the south to return to office, undercutting newly won civil rights for blacks, and looking the other way when blacks were violently attacked, lynched, and slaughtered. He undercut the efforts of moderate Republican Lyman Trumbull to extend the Freedman’s Bureau by vetoing the bill, even after Lyman’s extensive consultations with Johnson led him to think it would be passed. It increasingly appeared that all the sacrifice of Union troops was for naught, as Blacks still were treated as slaves in all but name. The crowning insult was Johnson’s campaign trip, the “swing around the circle” during the 1866 elections where he denounced Republicans Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and Wendell Philips by name.

While Republicans in Congress seethed at this treatment and the reversal of gains fought for during the Civil War, all of this occurred under the cloak of legality. Wineapple then discusses the efforts to limit the military occupation, including the work of Secretary of War Stanton and General Grant. This was one of the remaining protections for Black citizens. To protect Stanton, Congress passed over Johnson’s veto the Tenure in Office Act, prohibiting the firing of cabinet officials without Congressional approval. Johnson, believing the act unconstitutional, eventually sacked (or tried to) Secretary Stanton, which represented the crossing of a threshold that triggered the vote of impeachment in the House, and the impeachment trial in the Senate.

Wineapple takes us through the trial, introducing us to the managers for the House prosecution: Benjamin Butler who presented much of the evidence, and George Boutwell, and the courageous Thaddeus Stevens, enfeebled and dying. She gives us sketches of Chief Justice Chase, the defense for the president, key senators like Ben Wade, who stood to succeed to the presidency if Johnson was convicted, and correspondents including Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Georges Clemenceau. Then came the vote, 35-19, with a key Republican, Edmund Ross changing his vote to acquit at the last hour. Six other Republicans joined him and twelve Democrats in voting to acquit. Though never proven, there was evidence of payoffs.

Johnson served out his term, but was disappointed not to receive the appointment of his party. He eventually returned to the Senate, dying in office in 1875. Ulysses Grant succeeded to the presidency, reversing to some degree the effects of Johnson’s “Reconstruction.” But the promise briefly glimpsed by Lincoln was never to be.

Wineapple does an outstanding job of unfolding the history and the fascinating characters around the impeachment. Her account of the life and death of Thaddeus Stevens was particularly striking. Her book makes the case for the challenges of impeachment: the ambiguities of language and procedure. The truth was, Andrew Johnson was a disaster and a white supremacist and could not be removed for these reasons alone. Only the violation of a questionable law (later ruled unconstitutional) provided the pretext. Even this effort fell short. Wineapple also shows us that white supremacy is nothing new but has a long and ugly history in our country, one accustomed to the commission of sordid acts and the constraining of civil liberties with the pretext of respectable legality.

Essentially, impeachment is an unproven remedy for the removal of presidents considered to have committed “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Section IV of the 25th Amendment has never been attempted. This brings us back to the critical importance of the choices we make for who we elect to be president and vice-president. Whether in office by vote or accident, the only proven way presidents may be removed from office is by the Electoral College, reflecting (hopefully) on a state by state basis the results at the ballot box, an opportunity that comes only every four years. The attacks of White Supremacists on voting rights in Johnson’s day also remind us of the vital task of rigorously protecting voting rights for all our citizens, recognized as critical for “liberty and justice for all” then–and now.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.